It would be easy to pick up the impression that Britain has always been a country a little apart from the EU, where attitudes towards the union have always been sceptical, if not outright hostile. So now that Britain is leaving, will it mean a more harmonious EU, its peoples more focused on what it is for and what they would like it to achieve?
Not quite. The new EU-wide Project 28 poll suggests that while only one other country would — if granted an in-out referendum like Britain’s — vote to leave, people across the EU have some very ambivalent views about the union and its ability to last long into the future. Remarkably, a third of EU citizens does not believe that it will still exist in ten years’ time, including 41 per cent of Italians, 32 per cent of the French and even 28 per cent of Germans.
In the short term, however, the poll suggests that Jean-Claude Juncker, Donald Tusk and others do not have to worry too much about other countries following Britain’s example. A fear of more referendums, it has been suggested, is the reason the EU is so desperate to make sure that Britain is seen to get a bad deal out of its divorce. On these figures, if referendums were held in each of the EU’s 28 nations, only the Czech Republic would opt to go — by a margin of 47 to 43 per cent. The next most eurosceptic country, Greece, would vote to stay by a comfortable margin of 54 to 39.
There is no obvious pattern in enthusiasm for the EU — it is not a case of Mediterranean or Eastern European countries wanting to stay in order to benefit from large net subsidies while net contributor nations in Northern Europe want to seek a quick exit. The sceptical Czech Republic is flanked by the two countries keenest to stay: Poland, which has an 80 to 15 per cent majority in favour of remaining, and Hungary, where the figures are 79 to 15. Scandinavian countries are less enamoured with EU membership than most, but not to the extent that they would be likely to vote to leave: in Sweden, for example, 53 per cent are for staying and 34 per cent for leaving. A note of caution does, of course, have to be added: Britain was not expected, on the strength of polls held right up until voting day, to vote to leave.
While citizens of most EU countries would vote to stay, that doesn’t indicate huge enthusiasm for the whole project. When asked how the EU is doing in its efforts to improve Europe’s economy there is widespread scepticism, with the British far from the most negative. Greeks, for example, think that the EU is doing a bad job on the economy by a margin of 81 per cent to 17; Italians by 74 per cent to 23. It is scarcely any better in Finland (67 to 23), France (65 to 28) and Spain (61 to 36). Britons have a relatively rosy view (55 to 39). Countries with the most positive view about the EU’s work on the economy are Poland (74 per cent think it’s doing a good job, compared to 19) and Hungary (72 to 22).
Few seem to think the EU is tackling the issue of migration well. The views of Italians and Greeks, where 89 per cent in both cases think the EU is handling it poorly, are perhaps to be expected. But even in the most positive country, the Netherlands, only 32 per cent say the EU is handling migration well and 59 per cent badly. The views of the British on this issue are fairly average.
Where Britons do distinguish themselves from the rest of the EU is on the question of centralisation. Asked whether they think the EU’s institutions should have more power over national governments, only 18 per cent of Britons say yes and 68 per cent say no. This is a lot lower than the next country on the chart, Hungary, where 25 per cent think the EU should have more power over nation states and 61 per cent think it should have less. This maybe suggests that it is the broad issue of sovereignty rather than the EU’s performance on any particular issue that tips people’s view towards exiting the EU. That said, even Germans (by a margin of 50 to 37 per cent), think EU institutions have too much power.
Jean-Claude Juncker can take comfort from the views of his own nation, Luxembourg, where people, by a margin of 59 to 31 per cent, think the EU should have more power over its member states. Lithuania (55 to 32) and Spain (51 to 37) also think the EU should wield more power — which possibly doesn’t say much for what they think about their own governments and constitutions.
There is a very marked difference in optimism between eastern and western Europe. When asked whether their children will live better lives than themselves, the Baltic states are most positive, with 51 per cent of Latvians agreeing and 19 per cent disagreeing. In western Europe, however, there is a hugely negative outlook: in Belgium only 5 per cent of people think life will improve for their children and 66 per cent think it will be worse. Austria, France, Italy and Germany are not far behind in their pessimism. Britons are relatively optimistic by western European standards, but even here only 12 per cent think life will be better for their children and 45 per cent think it will be worse.
On one thing, EU citizens do seem to be agreed: that for all the EU’s pomp, Europe is a declining influence in the world. Across the EU only 5 per cent of people think that Europe is the most influential region, while 54 per cent name the USA, 26 per cent China and 8 per cent Russia. This opinion does not vary a great deal across Europe, although the British (8 per cent) think the EU is more influential than most. It is probably fair to assume most of that 8 per cent are Remain voters.
The overall picture is of a continent that thinks things are not going well: that the economy is performing poorly and that the EU is struggling to deal with migration and terrorism. Yet there is a reluctant view that European countries are nevertheless better off bound together by the EU.
If that doesn’t quite match the vision of the EU’s founders back in the 1950s, it is perhaps just enough to ensure that the union endures for the moment — even if many do not think that will extend beyond a decade.